Defending Big Ten champion Penn State returns a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back and a record-setting quarterback, and the Nittany Lions generally are regarded as one of the 10 best teams in the country.
They’re not even picked to win their division this season.
The Big Ten East favorite, as usual, is Ohio State, which is loaded with as much talent as ever and motivated to atone for an embarrassing finish to 2016.
So as great an accomplishment as it was for Penn State to go from being picked fourth in the division to winning its first league title since 2008, another grind is about to start. Coach James Franklin wants his players to put last season out of their minds.
“We’ve talked about it enough. The fans have talked about it. The media’s talked about it,” Franklin said. “They’ve been given rings. So that’s behind us. We have moved on.”
Saquon Barkley thrust himself into 2017 Heisman consideration after a dominant performance in the last-second Rose Bowl loss to Southern California. Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in passer rating and threw for four touchdowns in both the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and the bowl. The question is whether a defense that allowed 34 points a game against ranked opponents can hold up its end.
A three-week stretch spanning October and November — Michigan at home and road games at Ohio State and Michigan State — likely will be the key to the Lions’ season.
Ohio State has 15 starters back after having seven players drafted, including six of the top 70 picks. You can be sure Urban Meyer will have the Buckeyes on a redemption tour after they lost 31-0 to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Penn State also feels it has something to prove. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State and won the conference — and were left out of the playoff because of losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan.
Michigan, with losses in three of its last four games, is still waiting for the big payoff from its splash hire of Jim Harbaugh. He’s finished third in the East each of his first two years and still is looking for his first win over Ohio State.
Wisconsin brings back an experienced QB in Alex Hornibrook and a seasoned defense from its 11-win team. The Badgers don’t play Ohio State, and their toughest road game is at Nebraska.
Northwestern has a three-year starting QB in Clayton Thorson and a workhorse in RB Justin Jackson . Back-to-back games against Wisconsin (away) and Penn State (home) come early.
Iowa will rely heavily on 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley and a veteran offensive line as it breaks in a new QB. Penn State visits in September, but the hardest part of the schedule comes in November.
Penn State’s Barkley is going for a third straight 1,000-yard season. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett should flourish under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Northwestern’s Jackson will finish his career as the FBS’ No. 7 rusher if he matches last season’s 1,524 yards.
Ohio State DL Tyquan Lewis was Big Ten defensive lineman of the year in 2016. Indiana LB Tegray Scales led the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-leading 126 stops. Iowa LB Josey Jewell has started 30 straight games and made 124 tackles last season.
P.J. Fleck takes his “Row the Boat” mantra from Western Michigan to Minnesota. The Gophers won nine games under Tracy Claeys in 2016, but things got ugly at the end with a threatened player bowl boycott and sexual assault investigation.
Indiana’s Tom Allen was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach after the firing of Kevin Wilson. Allen oversaw remarkable improvement of one of the FBS’ worst defenses, and with QB Richard Lagow returning, the Hoosiers should make a run at a third straight bowl if they can survive a tough first half of the season.
Jeff Brohm won back-to-back Conference USA titles at Western Kentucky before moving to Purdue. He takes over a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2012.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Yes, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio built up considerable capital by winning the Big Ten in 2015. Serious off-field problems and a 3-9 campaign in 2016 make this an important year for the 11th-year coach.
Rutgers’ Chris Ash and Illinois’ Lovie Smith are going into their second seasons and have big buy-outs, but the clock is starting on both. Rutgers beat only one FBS opponent in 2016 and Illinois won three games, two fewer than in 2015.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Florida vs. Michigan, Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas; Pittsburgh at Penn State, Nebraska at Oregon, Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9; Wisconsin at BYU, Sept. 16; Northwestern at Wisconsin, Sept. 30; Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 7; Michigan at Penn State, Oct. 21; Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28; Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18; Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 24; Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25.
East: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers.
West: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois.
Champion: Ohio State.
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